By Amie Parnes and Justin Sink - 10/30/12 01:04 PM EDT
Hurricane Sandy has left more than 7.5 million people without power on the East Coast and thrown both presidential candidates off their schedule just a week from Election Day.
New York and New Jersey bore the brunt of the powerful storm, which knocked out power and could leave New York City’s subway system stalled for a week.
The storm is a challenge for President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, who were forced off the campaign trail at a critical moment in their tightening race.
Obama was updated on Sandy’s path throughout the night, White House officials said Tuesday morning. The president spoke by phone to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Jersey City Mayor Jeremiah Healy, and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, a White House official said.
Appearing on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Tuesday morning, Christie credited the president for his support throughout the process, saying he was "great." The New Jersey governor said he had spoken to Obama three times on Monday.
Obama is expected to receive another briefing on the storm Tuesday morning.
Romney will attend an event in Kettering, Ohio, with racecar driver Richard Petty and country musician Randy Travis, with the campaign saying attendees would be asked to bring disaster relief supplies to the event.
Ryan was scheduled to visit swing-state Colorado on Tuesday, but will instead return to his home state of Wisconsin, the campaign said. Ryan will stop by Romney campaign offices in La Crosse and Hudson to speak with volunteers and thank them for their storm relief work. Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, will visit campaign offices in Iowa to also help collect donations for the recovery.
But both campaigns will also continue to press their message, with precious little time left before election day. Ann Romney will resume campaigning at an event Tuesday evening in Des Moines, Iowa, while former President Clinton will headline two rallies for Obama in Minnesota and another pair in Colorado on Tuesday.
It is unclear when the president, who canceled a campaign event in Florida on Monday in order to fly back to Washington, will return to the campaign trail.
After the storm made landfall, Obama provided major disaster declarations for the states of New Jersey and New York, adding to the resources which had been available. The order providing additional federal support for states and communities who had suffered damage from the storm.
On a conference call with reporters on Monday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina addressed the cancellations, saying the president's "focus is on the storm."
Obama himself said he's "not worried at this point about the impact on the election." "I'm worried about the impact on families," Obama said in a briefing held after a meeting on the storm in the White House Situation Room. "I'm worried about the impact on our first-responders. I'm worried about the impact on our economy, and on transportation.
"The election will take care of itself next week," he said. "Right now our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that search and rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter they need in case of emergency and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."
Meanwhile Romney, who canceled events in Virginia over the weekend, held his scheduled rally in Ohio Monday morning but canceled the rest of his schedule for the day and for Tuesday.
The GOP nominee had been urging supporters to donate to hurricane recovery efforts and speaking to governors in affected states about the storm.
"Out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy, we are canceling tonight's events with Governor Romney in Wisconsin and Congressman Ryan in Melbourne and Lakeland, Florida. We are also canceling all events currently schedule for both Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan on Tuesday," Romney communications director Gail Gitcho said in a statement Monday afternoon. The campaign later said the event scheduled in Kettering, Ohio would proceed, focused on aiding recovery efforts.
Speaking to supporters in Ohio on Monday, Romney addressed the effects of the storm.
"There have been some hurricanes that have caused damage across this country and hurt a lot of families," he said. "And families will be hurt in their possessions or maybe something more severe. I would like to ask you here today to think about making a contribution to the Red Cross or to another relief agency to be of help, if you possibly can, to help those who are in harm's way."
Aides said that the candidate could make brief remarks at the event in Kettering, Ohio, on Tuesday, a sign the Republican presidential nominee was unlikely to cede a full news cycle with just a week to go before Election Day. Romney had originally planned the event in Kettering with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for Tuesday afternoon, before suspending his campaign out of deference to victims of the storm.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Romney was considering a visit to New Jersey later this week to examine the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Vice President Biden did hold a campaign rally with former President Clinton in Ohio on Monday afternoon. But the Obama campaign announced that Biden's events in Ohio on Tuesday and an event in Scranton, Pa., on Thursday would be canceled.
While the storm took Obama off the trail for a couple of days, it allowed him to use the power of the incumbency to show that he is on top of the situation.
“It’s really the only thing for a sitting president to do,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “The criticism that would be levied if he would campaign through the natural disaster would be bad.”
A source close to the campaign agreed, saying Obama is “doing what he needs to do.” “Is it ideal? Maybe not,” the source said. “But he can’t not oversee this crisis. This is his number one priority.”
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign was tight-lipped on Monday about the political ramifications of the storm, a tacit acknowledgment of the tight-wire act facing the candidate: appearing both appropriately sympathetic to those affected by the storm, while still making the carefully crafted closing argument intended for deployment across the campaign's final weeks.
"Governor Romney's concern is the safety and well-being of those in the path of this storm, not political considerations," said a Romney aide on Monday.
Still, the campaign was clearly looking to keep the Republican candidate relevant as media attention focused on the deadly storm barreling down on the Eastern Seaboard. Romney campaign staff repeatedly promoted a message from the Republican nominee to those affected by the storm, urging them to help neighbors, donate to the Red Cross and prepare for the storm by removing yard signs.
"I'm never prouder of America than when I see how we pull together in a crisis. There's nothing that we can't handle when we stand together," Romney said in the note.
Aides also noted that Romney was staying in close contact with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Christie. The campaign announced Monday that it would collect supplies at campaign offices in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia, with a campaign bus in Virginia delivering supplies to local storm relief.
Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said that Romney canceling his campaign events was a smart move.
“It sounds like a smart decision. Gov. Rom and his campaign cannot appear like they are trying to take advantage of a crisis moment like this," he said.
The after-effects of the storm, which is being called a once-in-a-lifetime event, are unknown, with residents along much of the East Coast, including in swing states like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire, without power, leading to questions about what will happen should that last into Election Day.
McDonnell told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday polling centers would be a priority for electrical workers.
"We'll be ready, but we're planning for contingencies if there's still a problem," he said.
— Niall Stanage and Meghashyam Mali contributed
—This story was first posted at 9:04 a.m. and was last updated at 11:33 a.m.